California Supreme Court dictated an unprecedented ruling regarding the ability of car passengers (other than the driver) to challenge improper stops made by police says, Joan Biskupic, reporter for US Today. The complete ruling can be read here.
The ruling was unanimous and helps to clarify breadth of the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits police from stopping vehicles without a reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing. By this ruling, any evidence found in the course of an illegal stop of a passenger usually cannot be used at trial. This ruling gives passengers the same rights that drivers had.
The unanimous ruling was based on “the justices’ “intuitive conclusion,” in the words of the opinion’s author, Justice David H. Souter, that passengers in a car stopped by the police do not feel free to get out and walk away”
“Consequently, a police stop results in a “seizure” of the passengers no less than of the driver. It is a basic principle of constitutional law that only a person who has been “seized” through official action can challenge that action as a violation of the Fourth Amendment’s prohibition on unreasonable search and seizure” Justice Souter said
Go back to November 2001, Yuba city. Two police officers stopped a car in which Bruce Brendling was riding as a passenger. The stop was made to check the vehicle’s registration. However, in the paper filings of the case, the police officers stated that they did not believed the car operated illegally (They already new that because of a previous car stop the same day). During the search, police officers found drug paraphernalia in Brendling’s pocket. Brendling pleaded guilty to the charges but argued on appeal that the evidence should be suppressed as the result of the unlawful stop.
The California Supreme Court, overturning a lower state court that had ruled in his favor, held that Mr. Brendlin was not entitled to seek suppression. The state court said that he was not the target of the stop and that until the officer recognized and arrested him, he had not been “seized.”
In Justice Souter opinion, “A traffic stop necessarily curtails the travel a passenger has chosen just as much as it halts the driver.” He added, “No passenger would feel free to leave.”
Martin S. Pinales, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, called the decision “a victory for common sense,” according to the NY Times.
We still do not know if the California Supreme Court decision will be of help to passengers to argue that the stop was improper. Only time will tell, but the ruling seems a step in the right direction.
Joan Biskupic. Court: Police stops can be challenged. USATODAY.com. June 18th, 2007. http://www.usatoday.com/news/washington/judicial/2007-06-18-scotus-police-stops_N.htm
BRENDLIN v. CALIFORNIA. certiorari to the supreme court of California No. 06-8120. June 18, 2007.
Linda Greenhouse. Passengers Granted Same Right as Drivers. New York Times. June 19th, 2007. http://www.nytimes.com/2007/06/19/washington/19scotus.html?hp